The next leg of the journey took them over low mountains-crushed green and brown hills, brittle and dry with the season, revealing crags, cliffs, waterfalls, and enormous rocks. Toward evening, Mercy could pick out fires between the trees and on the intermittent peak. She wondered what they might be-troops or travelers or homesteaders-until the captain clarified through his overly loud speaking tube.
“Down below us-oh! There’s one, just to the right. You see those little sparks? Those fires that look so tiny from our prodigious height?”
The passengers mumbled assent.
He said, “ ’Shiners, the lot of them. They do their distillations in the evening, and in the rural parts between the county lines, where they aren’t likely to be bothered.”
“Their distillations?” asked Mr. Rand.
The old lady spoke up. “Busthead. Red-eye. Mountain dew. They’re brewing alcohol, Mr. Rand,” she informed him, and likewise informed the group that there might be more to her sophisticated-looking soul than they’d previously assumed. “The South would like to tax it for revenue, but the folks who produce it often lack any other source of income; so I trust you can see the difficulty.”
“Absolutely,” Mr. Rand nearly purred. “Though I don’t suppose the CSA has the time or resources to devote to pursuing bootleggers.”
This time it was the clubfooted lad who contributed. “The local authorities-sheriffs, policemen, constables, or however the cities and townships are organized-they’re given leave by the capital in Danville to pursue the moonshiners at a personal profit, provided they collect the unpaid taxes. It’s been compared to privateering, and is approximately as popular as that old practice.” He sounded as if he were reciting some passage of a newspaper’s article, or a textbook’s chapter.
Gordon Rand smiled. “Which is to say, both very popular, and very dangerous, to both sides of the law. Yes, I understand.”
Mercy seethed a moment, then told him-and, by proxy, the rest of the passengers, “You know, not everyone does it to dodge the law. Some folks brew up batches for reasons of their own, and you might as well tax the chickens for making eggs as try to shake folks down for the pennies they might or might not earn.” Then, because everyone was looking at her strangely, she added, “Yes, my father brews up a barrel or two, every so often. Ain’t nobody’s business if he does.”
She straightened in her seat and fluffed up her smaller bag, preparing to use it as a pillow. She jammed it between her shoulder and the increasingly chilly window.
The student named Dennis said to the one named Larsen, “It does raise questions about the invasion of the private sector by the public office, and where those lines ought to be drawn. To what lengths can a society reach in order to maintain order?”
The other student’s response could’ve been cribbed from the same manual on politics. Soon the two were engrossed and ignoring her. The other passengers retreated to their newspapers, novels, or naps.
Between dozing and the inevitable tedium, Mercy was uncertain how much time had passed when she heard the popping noise again-the one that, she’d been assured, was only the result of a pneumatic hammer. But this time, when she looked out over the now-black mountains and valleys below, she knew she was well above any hammers or other tools. And down there, in broken lines and in sparkling flashes, she could see more fires in the distance.
All the other passengers were awake already and watching in utter silence, except for the elderly man, who still rested his head upon his wife. But even she strained to see over his head and out the window, wondering, like the rest of them, how close they were to the fighting.
The captain, ordinarily ebullient and talkative, was quiet. Mercy could see him through the gap in the curtain that separated the cockpit from the passenger cabin; in the glow of the low-lit cockpit lamps, she could tell that his knuckles were white on the steering column. He shot a nervous look at the first mate, but the other man’s attention was occupied by something down below, and then with something in the passenger cabin. He hissed back at the crew members in the rear. “All the lights. Every last one of them, off-now!”
The sound of unbuckling was loud in the otherwise empty space, and the two men in the back went from corner to corner, unplugging the strings that gave a dim electric glow to the Zephyr’s interior.
Gordon Rand asked, in his quietest and calmest voice, “Surely they can’t see us, all the way up here?”
“They can see us,” the captain replied, equally quiet but only half as calm. “All they have to do is look up. Problem is, they won’t see our civilian paint job. We thought we were far enough from the fighting that we could leave the heavy exterior lights back at the station.”
“Are they likely to notice us?” Against all logic, but keeping with the mood, Larsen was whispering.
“Hopefully not,” the captain was quick to say. “I’m going to take us higher, so they won’t hear us if we run the engines. We need to get out of their immediate airspace.”
“What are we doing in their immediate airspace?” Mr. Rand demanded.
The first mate replied, “We aren’t there on purpose, you limey bastard. The Yanks must’ve made a serious push between this morning and this evening. Carter said there’s no way they’d swing this far, unless we’ve gone off course-”
“I know what Carter said,” the captain growled. “And we haven’t gone off course. We’re brushing the south end of the Smokies, for God’s sake. If there’s fighting, it must’ve gotten here faster than the telegraph got to Richmond.”
The students were pressed with their noses against the glass like little boys examining a store display at Christmas. They were actually smiling, as excited as Mercy was nauseated. She’d never been to a front-the CSA’s, or anybody else’s-and knowing one was immediately below made the sides of her head hurt.
In front of her, the old man awakened and asked loudly, “What’s going on?”
Mercy resisted the urge to shush him, but Gordon Rand was nervous enough to wave his hand and say, “Sir, please.”
One of the crew members said, “They can’t hear us all the way up here.”
Everyone knew it was true, but no one wanted to push any of the luck that held them aloft.
It was nearly as black as the inside of a cave, there inside the Zephyr. Only the peeping glow of moonlight bouncing off the clouds lit the scene. The passengers could hardly see one another, though they traded nervous stares, looking from face to face for signs of comfort or confidence and finding nothing but the weak, pale frowns of ghosts.
Down on the ground, the world was bumpy and black, except where artillery flared, fired, and coughed thick plumes of smoke that looked white against the stark pitch of the night around the lines.
If Mercy looked long enough, she could almost see the battle lines themselves, or imagine them, letting her mind fill in the blanks. There, along the nubs of the Smoky Mountains, she could see a strip cut across the earth; it was a fragile thing from such a height, only a dim break in the trees where a railroad ran. It snaked, but not sharply, around the prohibitive geography; and in front of this line, she saw the big guns fanning forward, away from the train tracks, and into the forests.
She leaned out of her seat and asked the cockpit, “Captain, how far are we from Fort Chattanooga?”
“Thirty miles or so. We’re nearly on top of Cleveland, a little town outside it,” he replied without taking his eyes off the windscreen. From inside that tiny rounded space, blinking green and yellow lights flashed against the faces and hands of the men who worked them. “Worst comes to worst, we’ll make it to Cleveland and we can set down there and wait things out.”
Gordon Rand nearly sneered, “Worst comes to worst? We’ll crash and die, isn’t that closer to the worst end of the possibility spectrum?”
“Shut your mouth,” Mercy ordered him. “Have a little goddamned faith, would you?”
“Everyone stay calm!” The captain wasn’t quite breaking the veil of muffled conversation that stayed below the level of ordinary chatter, but his voice was rising. “No one even knows we’re up here.”
“How do you know that?” Dennis asked, sounding anxious for the first time.
“Because no one’s shooting at us yet. Now, all of you, please stay calm, and keep the chatter to a minimum. I need to concentrate.”
Their jolly little leader had turned out to be made of sterner stuff than he looked. That was fine by Mercy, who hadn’t initially pegged him as a man who was accustomed to handling an emergency. His hands worked the controls with familiarity, and there was a set to his jaw that inspired optimism, if not outright confidence. But she heard the first mate say, “We can’t go too much higher; these cabins aren’t pressurized for that kind of altitude.”
And the captain responded, “Yes, Richard. I know. But if we can just spin it up, we can give ourselves an arc and a boost outside their hearing.”
“It looks hot down there. They won’t hear a damn thing. And if we don’t shoot the boosters now, we’ll-”
“I’m doing the best I can. You see over there?” He pointed at something no one could see, but all the eavesdropping passengers craned their necks to spy at it regardless. “That’s the northern line. It’s got to be. And the southern one is back this way. Other than that, I can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on down there. But it’s either south or north for us-the fighting’s running east and west. I’ll take my chances with my own kind.”
“Your own kind can’t read in the dark any better than the boys in blue,” Richard countered. “They won’t see that we’re private and licensed until after they shoot us down, for all the good that’ll do us.”
“They’re not going to shoot us down. They don’t even know we’re here,” Gates repeated.
This was the moment fate chose to make a liar out of him.
Something struck them, a glancing blow that winged the outer edge of the Zephyr’s port side. The ship rocked and steadied, and the captain took the opportunity to gun the boosters hard-sending everyone slamming back in their seats. “Oh, God,” said one student, and the other gripped his friend’s arm as hard as he gripped the seat’s arm. Neither one of them was smiling anymore.
Mercy grabbed her seat and took a deep breath that she sucked in slow, then let out all at once.
“I thought you were taking us higher!” hollered Richard.
The captain said, “No point in that now, is there? They damned well know we’re-”
Another loud clang-like a brick hitting a cymbal, or a bullet hitting a cooking pot-pinged much louder and much closer, somewhere along the ship’s underbelly.
“Here. They know we’re here,” he finished as he leaned his full, copious weight back, drawing the steering column with him. From her tense position a few rows away, Mercy could see him digging his feet into a pair of pedals beneath the control panel.
“Then what’s the plan?” the Englishman asked, his words snapping together like beads.
The old woman asked, “Who’s shooting at us? Our boys, or theirs?”
And Mercy answered shrilly, “Who cares?”
“I don’t know!” the captain said through clenched teeth. “Either side. Both. Neither one has any way of knowing who we’re flying for, and it’s too dark to see our civvy designation.”
“Can’t we shine a light on it or something?” Mercy asked.
“We don’t have those kinds of lights,” the captain said. “We left them in Richmond for the next crew flying border territory.” But something in the hesitation between the words implied he was still pondering them.
A series of hits, small but more accurate, peppered the undercarriage.
The old man started to cry. His wife clutched him around the shoulders.
The students were out of their seats, and the two crewmen from the back came forward, urging them to sit down.
One of these crewmen held out his hands, standing between the cockpit and the passenger area. He said to the captain, though he was watching the passengers, “We have the dual-light torches. If we could hook a few to the hull, we could show our boys we’re on their side. Get at least one set of shooters off our case.”
The captain snapped back, “Are you joking? Those things are barely lanterns, and if you unhook them from the power source, they’ll burn for only a few-” He swung the ship hard to the right, responding to some threat Mercy couldn’t see. “-minutes.”
“It’s better than nothing, ain’t it?” the crewman pressed. “It’ll get us behind our own lines. They’ll see we’re one of theirs, and let us land.”
“Do you want to be the man who climbs outside and tries to hang them, like a row of goddamned Christmas candles?” The captain was shouting now, but the crewman didn’t flinch.
He nodded. “I’ll do it. I sailed before I took to the air. I’ve dangled from less than our outer hull, sir.”
Every face was turned to him, except for the man who steered the dark and bouncing ship through the night. They looked at him with hope, and with bewilderment. Even Mercy wanted to tell him he was mad, but she didn’t. Instead she prayed that he was serious.
“You’ll get yourself shot,” the captain told him.
“Or we’ll all of us go down in flames. I don’t mind taking my chances, sir,” he said. Without waiting to be dismissed, he ducked back into the recesses behind the seating area. His fellow mate swung his eyes back and forth, from the authority to his friend.
“Ernie,” he called into the dark place behind the back nook’s curtain. “Ernie, I’ll come with you. I’ll help out.”
Ernie’s head popped back out, splitting the curtains. His shoulders and torso followed, and his right hand appeared toting a cluster of strangely shaped lanterns that glowed like lightning bugs. Their gleam cast a yellow green glow around the cabin, not so bright that it could be seen from the ground, surely.
The old woman said crossly, “Those things don’t have near enough light. They’ll never reveal our sign from the field.”
But Ernie said, “Ma’am, they’re turned down low, on purpose. For now. I’ll spark them up when I get outside-and they’ll stay real bright for four or five minutes. They run on an electrical charge, and a static liquid on a set of filaments,” he explained, as if anyone present had the faintest clue what it meant. “When I flip the switch, it’ll light up the whole damn sky, plenty enough for the Rebs to spy us and let us down. Captain,” he said as he changed direction, “get us as far behind our own lines as you can, sir.”
Mercy fidgeted with the seat back in front of her. “Is there anything we can do to help?” she finally asked.
She could hardly see Ernie’s face, even in the ambient ooze of the lanterns.
He said, “No ma’am. Just hold on tight, I’ll take care of this. Or I’ll do the best I can, anyhow.”
“Ernest,” the captain said, making some token attempt to stop him or sway him. But he had nothing else to add, so he turned his attention forward. The dirigible swayed again, making Mercy wonder if he could see some of the threat as it fired up at them through the sky. “Ernest,” he finally finished. “Be careful out there. What are you wearing?”
“Wearing-,” he said again, and looked very fast over his shoulder. “I see. You’re sporting your grays. Throw on something darker. Robert, give him your jacket. Yours is black, isn’t it?”
“Yes sir,” said the other crewman. He pulled it off and tossed it to Ernie, who set the lamps down only long enough to don it.
Ernie nodded his thanks and retrieved the lamps, then mounted a ladder that Mercy hadn’t seen until just that moment. He leaped up it like a small boy scaling an oak. She’d never seen a man climb like that before, as if he were born in a tree.
He was gone, his feet disappearing up a hatch.
Another strip of rounds banged against the ship’s underside, casting a horrible noise into the otherwise stone-silent cabin. Mercy leaned against the window and tried to keep from looking out at the blackness and height that horrified her whether she admitted it or not. Consumed by feelings of uselessness and doubt, she clung to the edge of the seat in front of her.
Above and beyond, she could hear Ernie climbing, scuttling out some portal in the hull and balancing-she could hear it, or imagine it, the way he stood and gripped and held his breath to keep his angles upright-then half-slipping, half-crawling along the exterior. She could hear the way his hands and feet found handholds and footholds, and the stomp of the toe of his boots hitting horizontally against the hull. She tracked it.
Around. Sideways. Down. Over. Down some more.
Soon he was underneath them, holding on to God knew what.
Under her feet she could feel him, swinging like a monkey from hook to hook, or metallic outcropping to outcropping. The ship ticked, ever so slightly, left to right and forward and back. Ernie wasn’t a heavy man-Mercy thought maybe he was 150 pounds, soaking wet with rocks in his pockets-but his gravity was enough to change the flow of the dirigible’s progress, and the passengers could feel the faint jerk to the flow through the floor at their feet. It was the tapping pull of his body, slinging from point to point.
Every once in a while, despite the dimming of the lights and the silence of the folks within, a stray antiaircraft bullet dazzled the darkness with a shattering spray of sparks and sound. It was only by luck, all of them knew, that nothing hit harder, or penetrated the hull underneath.
All it would take, Mercy anxiously believed, was one round that entered the cabin and proceeded farther, up into the hydrogen tanks above. One round, and it was over; all of them were burning, and the ship was falling. One round would change everything with its precision, or its blind chance.
Underneath them, Ernie was swinging above the earth, hanging from his hands and firing up lanterns to show the Confederacy that this transport was not intended for target practice, but at the same time drawing the attention and fire of anyone within range.
Mercy lifted her head and asked the captain, “Sir, are we behind southern lines?”
“I think so,” he told her without looking at her. “It’s hard to tell down there. Very hard to tell. And if the Union has any antiaircraft power on its side, it might not matter. We might still be in range. Goddammit, Ernest,” he said with a growl.
As if in reply, three sharp raps banged against the outer hull-not shots, but knocks from a human fist.
Gordon Rand asked, “What does that mean?”
The captain answered, “That he’s done and coming back, I assume. Robert, poke your head out and see if you can help him.”
“You think he needs help?” The second crewman fidgeted over by the ladder.
“Three raps might mean help, or hurry, or go to hell, for all I know. Just check!”
Robert attempted to follow orders, scaling the ladder not quite so smoothly as Ernie. He reached the top just in time to hear another spray of fire, a wildcat’s yowl of tearing sheet metal. “What was that?” he demanded. No one answered him.
Everyone knew exactly as much as he did-that they’d been hit again, though heaven knew where or how badly. And then the captain knew, and probably the first mate also, for both of them made unhappy noises and yanked at the controls. Finally the first mate wanted to know, “What have we lost?” and the captain said back, “One of the rudders. Let’s just pray we’re over our own lines now, because there’s no way we’re doing anymore turning, unless it’s in circles.”
Above her head and to the right, Mercy heard Robert call, “Ernie! Where you at? You need a hand?”
Mercy joined the rest of the passengers in listening, perched on the very edge of their seats, breathing shallowly while waiting for a response. None came.
Robert called again: “Ernie? You out there?” His phrasing raised the possibility that he wasn’t out there, that he’d fallen or been picked off by the puncturing line of fire.
But then, to everyone’s relief, they heard the faint scrape of boots against steel, and Ernie called back, “I’m still here. Hold on.” Then they all heard more scuttling. “Getting down is easier than getting up.”
When Robert helped pull him back inside, everyone could see precisely why. His left hand was covered in blood, and the sailor-turned-dirigible-crewman was as pale as death in the unlit cabin. He announced, “One of the lanterns busted in my hand while I was trying to hang it. But the other two are up and holding. I placed ’em by the ‘civilian’ end of the sign. That’s where the CSA logo is tamped on, anyway. Hopefully they’ll see it all right.”
“It might’ve worked,” Gordon Rand posited. “No one’s shooting at us. Not right this second.”
The first mate said, “Maybe someone’s planning to make the next shot count. Or maybe they can’t see the paint job yet and they’re trying to get a good look.”
Rand added, “Or perhaps they’re slow readers.”
Mercy was out of her chair now, invigorated by the prospect of having something to do. She told Ernie, “Come sit over here, by me. And give me your hand.”
He joined her at her seat and sat patiently while she rummaged through her sack.
“Everybody hang on to something. We’re losing altitude,” the first mate announced.
The captain amended the announcement to include, “We’re going down, but we aren’t crashing. Brace yourselves as you can, but I repeat, we are not crashing. The steering’s all but gone out, that’s all, so I can raise or lower us, but not point us in any direction.”
“Are we behind southern lines?” someone other than Mercy asked, but she didn’t see who’d raised the question again.
“Yes,” the captain’s tone of certainty was an outright lie, but he stuck to it. “We’re just setting down, but we might take a tree or two with us. Estimated time to landing, maybe two or three minutes-I’ve got to take her down swift, because we’re drifting back the other way.”
“Oh, God,” said the old lady.
“Don’t holler for him yet,” Mercy muttered. “It might not be as bad as all that. Ernie, let me see your hand.”
“We’ve only got a couple of minutes-”
“I only need a couple of minutes. Now hold still and let me look.” By then, she’d found her bandage rolls. She tore off a portion of one, and used it to wipe the area clear enough to see it better. It wasn’t all cuts, and it wasn’t all burns. In the very dim light that squeezed in through the windows, she could see it was a blending of both. Mercy would’ve bet against him ever having proper use of his mangled index finger again; but the wound wouldn’t be a killing one unless it took to festering.
“How bad is it?” he asked her, both too nervous too look, and too nervous to look away. He blinked, holding his head away so he couldn’t be accused of watching.
“Not so bad. Must hurt like the dickens, though. I need to wash it and wrap it up.”
“We only have-”
“Hold it up, above your shoulder. It’ll bleed slower and hurt less that way,” she urged, and dived back into the bag. Seconds later, she retrieved a heavy glass bottle filled with a viscous clear liquid that glimmered in the moonlight and the feeble glow from the lanterns outside.
He said, “We’re going down. We’re really going down.”
He was looking out the window beside her head. She could see it, too-the way the clouds were spilling past. She tried to ignore them, and to ignore the throat-catching drop of the craft.
“Don’t look out there. Look at me,” she commanded. Meeting his eyes she saw his fear, and his pain, and the way he was so pallid from the injury or the stress of acquiring it. But she held his eyes anyway, until she had to take his hand and swab it off with a dampened bandage.
The Zephyr was not falling, exactly. But Mercy could not in good conscience say that it was “landing” either. Her stomach was up in her mouth, nearly in her ears, she thought; and her ears were popping every time she swallowed. If she didn’t concentrate on something else, she’d start screaming, so she focused on the bleeding, burned hand as she cleaned it, then propped Ernie’s elbow on the headrest to keep it upright while she fumbled for dry bandages.
The old man leaned forward and threw up on the floor. His wife patted at his back, then felt around for any bags or rags to contain or clean it. Finding none, and lacking anything better to do, she returned to the back-patting. Mercy couldn’t help them, so she stayed with Ernie, wrapping his still-bleeding hand and doing it swiftly, as if she’d been mummifying hands for her whole life. She did it like the world was ending at any minute, because for all she knew, it might be.
But things could be worse. No one was shooting at them.
She told Ernie, “Hold it above your heart and it won’t throb so bad. Did I tell you that already?”
“Well, keep doing it.” She gasped then as the ship gave a lurch and a heave as if its own stomach were sinking and rising. The captain told everyone to “Hang on to something!” but there was no something handy except for the seat.
Ernie went for chivalry, flinging his right arm over Mercy’s shoulder and pulling her under his chest; she ducked there, and wrapped her left arm around his waist. She closed her eyes so she couldn’t see the ground rearing up out the window, not even out of her peripheral vision.
The next phase was not as sudden as she’d expected. It sneaked up on her, taking her breath away as the Zephyr sliced through treetops that dragged it to a slower pace, then snagged it and pulled it down to the ground with a horrible rending of metal and rivets. The ship sagged, and dipped, and bounced softly. No one inside it moved.
“Is it-?” asked the old woman whose name Mercy still didn’t know. “Are we-?”
“No!” barked the captain. “Wait! A little-”
Mercy thought he might’ve been about to say farther, because something snapped, and the craft dropped about fifteen feet to land on the ground like a stone.
Though it jarred, and made Mercy bite her tongue and somehow twist her elbow funny, the finality of the settled craft was a relief-if only for a minute. The ship’s angle was all wrong, having landed on its belly without a tethering distance. From this position, they lacked the standard means of opening the ship to let them all go free. A moment of claustrophobic horror nearly brought tears to Mercy’s eyes.
Then she heard the voices outside, calling and knocking; and the voices rode with accents that came from close to home.
Someone was beating against the hull, and asking, “Is everybody all right in there? Hey, can anybody hear me?”
The captain shouted back, “Yes! I can hear you! And I think everyone is . . .” He unstrapped himself from his seat-the only seats with straps were in the cockpit-and looked around the cabin. “I think everyone is all right.”
“This a civvy ship?” asked another voice.
“Says so right on the bottom. Didn’t you see it coming down?”
“No, I didn’t. And I can’t read, nohow.”
Their banal chatter cheered Mercy greatly, purely because it sounded normal-like normal conversation that normal people might have following an accident. It took her a few seconds to realize that she could hear gunfire in the not-very-distant distance.
She disentangled herself from Ernie, who was panting as if he’d run all the way from the clouds to the ground. She nudged him aside and half stepped, half toppled out of her seat, bringing her bags with her. The crewman came behind, joining the rest of the passengers who were trying to stand in the canted aisle.
“There’s an access port, on top!” the captain said to his windshield.
That’s when Mercy saw the man they were speaking to outside, holding a lantern and squinting to see inside. He was blond under his smushed gray hat, and his face was covered either in shadows or gunpowder. He tapped one finger against the windshield and said, “Tell me where it is.”
The captain gestured, since he knew he was being watched. “We can open it from inside, but we’ve got a couple of women on board, and some older folks. We’re going to need some help getting everyone down to the ground.”
“I don’t need any help,” Mercy assured him, but he wasn’t listening, and no one else was, either.
Robert was already on his way up the ladder that he and Ernie had both scaled earlier, though he dangled from it strangely, so tilted was the ship’s interior. He wrapped his legs around the rungs and used one hand to crank the latch, then shoved the portal out. It flopped and clanged, and was still. Robert kept his legs cinched around the ladder and braced himself that way, so he could work his arms free.
He reached down to the passengers and said, “Let’s go. Let’s send some people up and over. You. English fella. You first.”
“Why me first?”
“Because you ain’t hurt, and you can help catch the rest. And Ernie’s got his hand all tore up.”
“Fine,” Gordon Rand relented, and began the tricky work of climbing a ladder that leaned out over his head. But he was game for it, and more nimble than the tailored foreign clothes let on. Soon he was out through the portal and standing atop the Zephyr, then sliding down its side, down to the ground.
Mercy heard him land with a plop and a curse, but he followed through by saying to someone, “That wasn’t so bad.”
That someone asked, “How many are there inside?”
“The captain, the copilot, and half a dozen passengers and crew. Not too many.”
“All right. Let’s get them down, and out.”
Someone else added, “And out of here. Bugle and tap says the line’s shifting. Everybody’s got to move-we might even be in for a retreat to Fort Chattanooga.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I’m serious enough. That’s what the corporal told me, anyway.”
“Son of a bitch. They’re right on top of us!”
Mercy wished she could see the speakers, but she could see only the frightened faces of her fellow passengers. No one was moving yet; even Robert was listening to the gossip outside. So she took it upon herself to move things along.
“Ma’am? Sir?” she said to the older couple. “Let’s get you up out of here next.”
The woman looked like maybe she wanted to argue, but she didn’t. She nodded and said, “You’re right. We’ll be moving slowest, wherever we go, or however we get there. Come along, dear.”
Her dear said, “Where are we going?”
“Out, love.” She looked around. “I can make it up on my own, but he’ll need some assistance. Captain? Or Mr. . . . Mr. First Mate?”
“Copilot,” he corrected her as he climbed into the cabin. “I’d be happy to help.”
Together they wrested and wrangled the somewhat reluctant old man and his insistent wife up the concave ladder and out the hatch. Then went the clubfooted student; and then Ernie, with a little help from Robert; and then Mercy, who couldn’t get off the thing fast enough. Finally, the other student and the rest of the crew members extracted themselves, leaving the Zephyr an empty metal balloon lying tipped and steaming on the ground.